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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Telling the Story: Artists’ Books

Telling the Story: Artists’ Books examines contemporary books in which diverse formats are used. For some, the book form is the primary means of expression, while others, involved with multiple disciplines, treat the book as an extension of their repertoire.

The origin of the book dates back thousands of years. Many artists today have been influenced not only by western approaches to bookmaking, but ancient eastern techniques and materials. It is estimated that books were used as early as 3,000 years ago. Man had the desire to create a record of his experiences and, ultimately, materials were developed allowing these documents, scrolls etc. to be portable. The book of antiquity was considered precious and attributed special status because of the intense labor involved when artists illuminated or illustrated the text. In the East, the first book may have been made of bamboo or palm leaves in the shape of a fan or the blind form, similar in structure to venetian blinds.

The prototype for the book we know today was constructed by the Romans. They used pieces of thin wood treated with heat and wax, binding them together with cord or leather. With the increasing use of paper around 800 AD and, ultimately, the invention of movable type in 1450, books became more accessible. During the Industrial Revolution great strides were made in printing and printmaking, effecting the production of books. The hand-bound or limited edition book resurfaced to mark every major art movement in the twentieth century. Artists’ books seem to proliferate when individual expression and the desire to work outside the traditional confines of painting and sculpture are on the rise.

Joyce Wellman's artist book

In 2006, it’s about time we take a close look at the present day art of making books special. This show includes works by thirty-two artists from the Mid-Atlantic region. The artists presented in Telling the Story: Artists’ Books merge text, form and narrative with the visual through handcrafted, sculptural, photographic and technological means. Debra Weier’s pop-up books are architectonic in structure and several refer to concrete poetry, visual notions of human evolution and life and death. The final form of Lai Chung Poon’s autobiographical graphic narrative is a sphere of folded pages based on origami. The process of construction is displayed on a DVD projector. She further expounds upon her life via an audio component. Suzanne Reese Horvitz uses glass as a principle medium for several of her books. Innumerable artists in the exhibit use accordion forms, cut-outs and other variations on traditional Western codex books. The codex book usually has uniform or irregular pages that follow a sequential pattern and is bound on one side by cord, string, leather or board.

Many of the artists included in this exhibit are concerned with socio-political concepts that underlie means of production. In these works, images and text converge to promote a heightened awareness of issues for social change. Erasure by Curlee Holton broaches the subject of race and the duplicity of consciousness in which a colored face is transformed into a white one. Is this Holton’s commentary on what white America expects of its black masses? Printmaker, Gordon Murray weaves through the image of his prints a political parable that addresses the peril of silence in response to atrocities. Michael Platt and Carol A. Beane’s riveting and haunting visuals and text in Solitary Mornings hint at their African American heritage, yet it is the power of this collaborative work in which one is made to understand reverence for the aged and the need to pour libations in honor of the dead. Joyce Wellman, particularly moved by a conference she attended on the Underground Railroad, devoted a collection of abstracted etchings constructed as an accordion book, to illuminate narratives by ex-slaves, whose stories she presents on DVD. Doug Beube and Zoe Darling’s works hinge on moral issues. While Doug attempts to reconcile the act of repentance in Sin and Repent, indicating symbolically that the memory of sin is ever present, Darling evokes a contemporary assessment of the Roe vs. Wade ruling by the Supreme Court in 1973. This law could possibly become null and void in the near future, thus threatening strides women have made over the past three decades in gaining control over their lives and their bodies.

Pieces by Janet Goldner, Elizabeth Mackie, Heejung Kim and Miriam Schaer are explorations of spatial relationships, exemplifying the broad parameters of what is considered a book. They use the book as a point of departure for making sculptural objects. According to Maria Anasazi, the book is the “body” and her works stem from that base to create works meant to be experienced in tactile visceral ways beyond just turning even-sized bounded pages. For Goldner, the book provides another outlet for her work in steel. She recycles scraps of metal and creates work like Triangle, Circle, Square and Negelan. Negelan is a hybrid term, based on the language of the Bambara in Mali, coined by Goldner to mean making designs in metal.

The categorization of artists’ books is an arena that is open for discourse. Artist/writer/historian, Johanna Drucker has taken the initial steps toward the establishment of a canon. She states that a critical terminology based on an historical perspective and descriptive vocabulary is important to further the discourse on artists’ books. I can appreciate Drucker’s call for a structured approach to assessing artists’ books, but I think that the aesthetician and art historian can apply criteria used to define ideas and concepts related to general art practices. Areas in which additional criteria may be needed are: the creation of the hand bound book as a traditional craft executed by artisans, and the role of publishers in production. A publisher’s influence often impacts the direction a book will take in contrast to artist-driven works.

The point of departure for selecting works for this exhibit had much to do with form and content. The impetus for creation of the works presented focuses on ideas that stem directly from the artist. Preferences leaned toward books that were variations on the codex form and book objects. The definition of the artist book varies, but in many instances multiple approaches, in addition to basic book forms, are employed.

Narrative works based on poems or text generated by the artist are evident in pieces by Shellie Jacobson, MaryAnn Miller, Carol Moore, Liz Mitchell, Robert Roesch and Margot Lovejoy. While Jacobson and Miller’s works are directly related to the imagery evoked by the text, Suzanne Horvitz, Liz Mitchell and Lovejoy’s uses of text are carefully woven into the fabric of the book with collaged revelatory and enigmatic images. Lovejoy in Paradox Mutations contrasts the modernist idealization of concepts such as truth, unity and freedom with images reflective of a fragmented post-modern society, driven by technology. Twin Mirror Image by Horvitz delves into the idea of opposition and the merging of disparate figures and forms drawn or digitally altered. Robert Roesch binds his codex book in aluminum. Sea Sense, devoted to Roesch’s descriptive exploits as a seaman, is contrasted with abstract depictions of geometric forms that hint at the presence of sea and sailboat and the horizon line. Liz’s works punctuate the significance of the narrative, labeling them as “unstoppable stories” in her accordion fold book rough waters/blue skies. The essence of sky and water is evoked in this powdery blue multilayered book of collaged linoleum cut prints with chine collé. Miriam Shaer combines text with a whimsical sculpturally derived form in the work Baby Love. She makes a pun of a lover’s lament by writing the lyrics of this song, made famous by the Supremes, in a bound book with cut out pages in the shape of an infant’s dress. She intentionally alters the words to convey her ambiguity about having children. Carol Moore prints sonnets by obscure Renaissance women on handkerchiefs, which she often incorporates in installations, resurrecting the work of these women for the general public to admire.

Although Lois Morrison uses text, what dominates her works are intricate cut-outs of various characters such as those found in the Land of Shadows and the multi-limed titan from Greek mythology, Geryon. Barton Lidice Benes’ sardonic title American Pie alludes to infamous people in recent American history. Intended to heighten awareness of global warming is Libby Newman’s book. Her visuals are digital prints from wood cuts; she includes poems on this poignant subject by youth from the Interfaith Youth Poetry Project. Miriam Beerman is represented by a journal styled piece. She subtly alludes to the travesties of war and includes excerpts by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca along with her own personal notations. Her graphic gestural approach to mark-making is punctuated by the intimate scale of the book. Collaborative endeavors are not foreign to the book arts- Robin Rice and Antonio Puri work together to create an accordion book and a scroll. Although language is a part of these works, in the accordion piece it is obfuscated.

Visual books dependent only on the color form and plastic elements on the page are well represented in this exhibit. Karen Guancione creates a diary of found objects, drawings and love notes; E. J. Montgomery’s Spiritual Encounters is designed to suggest the feeling of a journey through nature at different times of the day or year. Debra Weier, inspired by Japanese scrolls, creates a book in which the elements that tie the work together— string and geometric shapes— extend continuously through it. Mystic Traveler is a unique construction by Maryann J. Riker and is about the different twists and turns one takes in life. The snail shells are analogous to the baggage carried in life and how the shell serves as a protective shelter. Riker diverges from the traditional book format, creating a boxed puzzle. Maria Pisano works thematically and her tunnel books on display are based on the four elements. Nyugen Smith’s miniature Carry Book is bound in the remnant of a leather glove and nestled within fur wrappings. This work is made of yellowed parchment paper with random red markings throughout.

At this juncture in a post-conceptualist era, most of the works in this exhibit are concerned with conveying a particular idea outside formal aesthetic concerns. We present a snapshot of the evolution of the artists’ book from limited edition books to the altered appropriated book work. The celebration of the artists’ books by artists, collectors and institutions in America has been growing constantly since the ‘60s. The advent of the Conceptualist movement fostered an anti-establishment approach to making art, capable of operating outside the hegemony of the museum world, in an attempt to make it more democratic. However, according to Lucy Lippard, “Communication (but not community) and distribution (but not accessibility) were inherent in Conceptual art”. If the directive of democratization was not reached, at least, through the years, the artists’ books provided a viable alternative means for expression and social commentary and activism. It has always had the potential to attract audiences beyond the mainstream. The art of the book is alive and flourishing.

A. M. Weaver

Curator of Exhibitions and Collections

The Noyes Museum of Art

Photos © 2006 Harlee Little

All content © 2006 Black Artists of DC all rights reserved.
For permission to reproduce contact:

Monday, November 13, 2006

Creating Beauty beyond the Beat Down of Oppression

By Daphne Muse

As the daughter of an 84-year-old textile artist who has been quilting for more than thirty years and the great-granddaughter of a woman whose parents were enslaved Africans, I’ve been warmed by both the aesthetics and utility of quilts for several decades. Through my mother’s exquisite hand sewn quilts, dolls and story coats, I’m surrounded by the narrative of familial and cultural stories. I also often sleep under an intact quilt made in the first decade of the 20th century, by Daphne Allen, my fraternal great-grandmother. There is great comfort in sleeping with that beauty and history
Based on our shared passion for quilts, four years ago my brother Vincent sent me a copy of Gee’s Bend: the Women and Their Quilts, a book that introduced me to the artistic visions of a group of quilters from a tiny rural community in South Central Alabama known as Gee’s Bend. Nestled in the bend of the historically and environmentally murky Alabama River, the intersection of the river and the land forms a peninsula five miles wide and eight miles long. It’s created a unique kind of geographical and cultural isolation that has served to benefit the community in some truly ironic ways. Because the inhabitants of Gee’s Bend were left largely to themselves close to one hundred years after the end of the Civil War in 1865, many of the community’s traditions and folkways survived virtually unchanged well into the 20th century. It’s a timeless place safe enough for people to go walking after dark and where sometimes the loudest sound is the rising of the moon.
Populated almost entirely by African Americans, a collective of some twenty women from Gee’s Bend have brought a bold and daring new vision to the world of modern art through a medium often relegated to a craft and hobby. But not only have the quilters put Gee’s Bend on the world map, their work has resulted in a following that flew in from Philadelphia, Oklahoma and LA to view their work, attend workshops and get books signed containing images of their blazing with color and at times outright brazen, often asymmetrical works of art.
After my brother sent me that first book, we spent months on the phone talking about how bold and African these quilts appeared and how the precise, geometric patterns told such familiar stories like the one’s in Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use.” We both thought these women had to be mathematical geniuses in order to create the architecturally compelling convergence of image and design that drives so much of their work as seen in Loretta Pettway’s “Log Cabin Courthouse Steps.” I’d sure live in a house designed by Louisiana P. Bendolph’s quilt “Housetop.” It has an uncanny resemblance to traditional architecture and art of the Ndebele women of South Africa. Some of the quilts have been reproduced as etchings by Berkeley’s Paulson Press and some designed into fine carpets available at various retail outlets. A series of titles, all published by Tinwood Books, have been issued documenting their work:
Gee’s Bend: the Women and Their Quilts 2002
The Quilts of Gee’s Bend 2002
The Architecture of Gee’s Bend 2006
When I read the announcement that the Quilts of Gee’s Bend was coming to the de Young, I literally organized my writing schedule and other dimensions of my life so that I could attend the workshops and receptions connected to the exhibit. The showing of their works in museums across the country including the Whitney in New York, High in Atlanta and now the de Young in San Francisco has rooted curators out of the business as usual paradigm of the art world and called upon them to sit up and respond to the clamor created through the work, amazing voices and profoundly spiritual presence of these artists.
These four generations of women simply did not succumb to the beat down of racism, oppression or fear. Nor do they travel with the edge of searing egos or artistic angst often present in creative people. They let nothing stop them from their replaying their dreams, visions and encounters in their daily lives through the bold colors and daring juxtaposition of form in quilts ranging from Nettie Young’s “H” variation, Milky Way” to Annie May Young’s “Work Clothes” and Loretta Pettway’s “Medallion.” Many of the quilts are made from scraps of denim workpants, brightly colored cast offs, voter registration banners and corduroy. They simply were made for warmth, but with an astonishing beauty.
While it’s thrilling to see these women hailed and celebrated in their lifetime, it is even more reassuring to know that they benefit from the sale of their work. On my four visits to the de Young, the lines to purchase related products including books, scarves, cards and posters teamed with people eager to acquire their art. While the etchings fetch between $1200.00 and $4500.00, the price range for the quilts is $26,000.00-$30,000.00. Each time a quilt sells, fifty percent of the proceeds go to the quilter and the other fifty percent goes to the collective. At the end of the year, the funds directed to the collective are equally divided and included in the equation are those women who can no longer quilt because of diminishing vision and other health challenges. The women also receive royalties from all related products.
One also cannot overlook the unwavering commitment and marketing perseverance of controversial Georgia-born art collector William Arnett and his son Matt. In 1998, Arnett saw a photograph of Annie Mae Young with her great-granddaughter. In the photo were two quilts that caught his eye and set him on the path to beating down doors to get the works of these artists on the walls of the country’s leading museums. He established the Tinwood Ventures in 2002 as a non-profit venture organized to advance the work of vernacular visual artists into the public domain.
A few weeks ago, through the generosity of a woman from Oregon I’d never met and as a result of a simple hello to a woman who turned out to be the curator for the de Young exhibit, I was invited to share in the Oregon woman’s dream of hosting breakfast for the quilters. As the food was being served, artist Florine Smith reached over to me quizzically whispering what exactly we were eating. The Duck Frittata was new to their palates and skepticism prevailed.
At one point during the meal at Postrio, a toney San Francisco Restaurant, the voices of Mary Lee Bendolph and Lucy Mingo welled up in song from deep within the ravines of their souls, almost shattering the Dale Chihuly glassworks adorning the restaurant. My eyes brimmed with tears as the range of their voluminous voices, uproarious laughter, heart melting smiles and funny stories which fed my spirit, deeply. Then Mary Lee Bendolph and Florine Smith shared in telling story about a culinary rebellion they almost started while in Cincinnati. Worn to the bone by the absence of food familiar to their own palates, they started chanting chicken, chicken, chicken! Then Ms. Smith looked at me and said, “All I want is some greens, baby; all I want is some greens.” Believe me, I so wanted to bring this collective of artistic royalty platters of greens, yams, cornbread, butterbeans and fried chicken, when I returned to the museum the next day for their workshop. I so wanted to prepare a major throw down, but I simply couldn’t work in shopping for, preparing and getting to the de Young on time for their workshop. I also had visions of the culinary “aromatherapy” of fried chicken, greens and yams lighting up the corridors of the de Young.
The Museum of the African Diaspora also mounted a small exhibit of the quilts and hosted a presentation on the Freedom Movement and Gee’s Bend led by Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement Jean Wiley and Bruce Hartford. I also gathered up family members from Eugene, Oregon to Santa Cruz, California and took several students from Mills College to bear witness to these amazing women and their works. The demand for these artist and the exhibit resulted in the museum staff having to do serious overtime to accommodate lines winding through its mighty halls, as though they were lined up to hear rock stars. Tickets to their workshops sold out within days after they went on sale. One woman proclaimed this to be the biggest thing since the Beattles!
Their spirits are as vibrant as their quilts and they range in age from mid-30s to early nineties, with one of the youngest Louisiana Bendolph clearly forging some daring new territory in this art form. Tears continuously streamed down my face as I sat amongst several of students I’d invited to join me at a workshop, where ten of the quilters were joined by vocalist Linda Tillery and an ensemble from her cultural heritage choir, as their combined voices almost blew the rooftop off the de Young. The exhibit runs through December 31st at the de Young. But you also can see other exhibitions of their work at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and their work is going to Japan.
In December, I’m following up on the invitation by several of the quilters to come and visit Gee’s Bend (45 miles from Selma). My mother lives in Southwest Georgia, a mere four hours drive, as the crow flies, from where these women still gather as a collective to quilt their dreams, visions and elements from their everyday lives; I want to share this deeply profound artistic and spiritual experience with the woman whose quilts and coats cover and comfort four generations of Muse women.
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and archivist, living in Oakland, California.
To find out more about the history of Gee’s Bend, the Quilters and the schedule for the exhibit at the de Young, go to the following websites:
Daphne Muse

All content © 2006 Black Artists of DC all rights reserved.
For permission to reproduce contact: